The Oldest Tree in the World

Simone Preuss
Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff
Environment, June 05, 2012
  • As the harsh wind whistles around the ancient, branched giants, visitors can’t help experience a sense of awe, faced with the trees’ magnificence. This humbling feeling is well justified: these trees are older than any other single living organism known to man. And, as the visitors come and go, the wise old trees simply stand, impassive, as if gently guarding the world.

    In this beautiful night shot, a bristlecone tree trunk sits against a backdrop of star trails in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in eastern California’s White Mountains. This particular trunk can be found in the park’s Methuselah Grove, which was named after the oldest of its inhabitants, “Methuselah” (in turn named after the oldest person in the Bible) – an unmarked bristlecone pine that is, by some accounts, 4,844 years old! Yup, that’s right, we didn’t add an extra digit at the end by mistake; the tree really is just 156 years short of living for five millennia, making it 1,000 years older than any other tree on Earth!

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  • With the concentric star trails crowning this bristlecone pine, the image looks almost out of this world.

    Unless otherwise noted, most of the incredible photos seen here were taken in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) grows at a high elevation of between 9,800 and 11,000 feet (3,000 and 3,400 m) and is protected within the White Mountains by the Inyo National Forest. To guard these ancient specimens further – from trophy seekers, vandals and the overly curious – the trees are unmarked, meaning that only experts and those who are really clued-in know where the oldest can be found.

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  • This bristlecone pine trunk in California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest shows us how gnarled and twisted these old trees can become. If you want to go out and find it for yourself, this beautiful tree was snapped at Schulman Grove. The grove itself is named after one Dr. Edward Schulman, who was the first to discover the native tree’s incredible longevity.

    There are only three species of bristlecone pine in the world, and they all grow in the western United States: the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva, seen in most of these images), which grows in Utah, Nevada and parts of California; the Rocky Mountains bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), which grows in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona; and the Californian Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana), which can also be found in California.

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  • While full-length shots of the ancient trees let you appreciate their gnarled beauty in full, close-ups reveal secrets that lie closer to the bark. Like the wrinkles in a wizened face, a closer inspection reveals the beautiful lines, colors and textures of the ancient wood.

    Bristlecone pines grow in cold, dry conditions, just below the tree line. A perfect example of slow and steady, these trees grow very slowly in order to reach the ripe old age of thousands of years.

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  • This magnificent bristlecone pine trunk stands like a sculpture in Patriarch Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We especially love the intertwined parts on the left, with their swirls and gentle hues. Patriarch Grove is named in honor of the largest bristlecone pine tree on Earth, the aptly named Patriarch Tree. An average tree will still reach the impressive height of 16 to 49 feet (5 to 15 m).

    Though the arid earth, cold temperatures and harsh winds make growing a tough and drawn-out process, these conditions also lead to the trees’ very dense and resin-rich wood, which helps protect them from rot, fungal infection and parasites.

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  • This magnificent image shows a hauntingly beautiful bristlecone pine captured against the stark majesty of the night sky. Captured at Patriarch Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, there aren’t many organisms on earth older than this tree, which makes its juxtaposition with the stars seem particularly fitting.

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  • Here’s another stunning close-up of an ancient bristlecone pine snapped at Mount Evans in the Rocky Mountains. This one’s perfect for playing ‘I Spy’: just look at the image closely and see which faces, shapes and animals you can make out. There’s even a goat in there somewhere! (If you want to know where, follow the link to the Flickr page.)

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  • This looks like the same specimen we saw earlier, found at Schulman Grove in California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Regardless of how many times you look at these trees, it seems there’s always something new to discover!

    With a slow growth rate comes slow regeneration and a low rate of reproduction, making the bristlecone pine fairly low in population numbers. The pine is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, and unsurprisingly, gathering the trees’ wood and cutting them down is strictly prohibited. Phew!

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  • Photographer Tom DiMatteo shares with us how deceptive a serene image like this one can be. What looks like a sunny summer day was, in fact, anything but! DiMatteo recalls: “It was absolutely freezing and windy as hell, and after struggling to find compositions while keeping my hands and camera warm, I had to stop the car and take one more short climb to get this shot. Late afternoon sunlight provided perfect lighting for this beauty… This is actually a fallen ancient bristlecone I spotted near the side of the road leading out of the White Mountains.”

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  • Here’s a sunrise shot featuring another ancient stunner. Doesn’t it look like the old giant is giving its branches a good morning stretch?

    The name bristlecone pine, by the way, refers to the dark purple female cones that the trees bear. They are so prickly and bristle-like that they seemed perfect for characterizing the whole species!

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  • Gnarly is certainly the word that comes to mind when looking at this ancient tree so closely. A real beauty!

    Funnily enough, these gentle giants lived quite undetected throughout the centuries. It was a student, Donald R. Currey of the University of North Carolina, who found out the age of a bristlecone pine while taking core samples. He discovered “Prometheus”, a 5,000-year-old tree at Wheeler Peak, Nevada in 1964. Sadly, “Prometheus” has since been cut down (for scientific purposes), making “Methuselah” the oldest living bristlecone pine at roughly 4,844 years.

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  • Set against the green background vegetation, the gentle brown and grey swirls of this bristlecone pine look even more amazing.

    As a survival strategy, much of the pine’s wood is actually dead. Damaged bark and tissues (which may have fallen prey to fire, drought or storms) die so that no water or nutrients are transported into these parts, thus reducing the effort needed to keep the remaining parts alive.

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  • “Old and New” could be the title of this image, which shows an example of the oldest trees in the world alongside younger vegetation. Certainly something for the youthful saplings to look up to!

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  • This picture sets a bristlecone pine against a clear blue sky and indicates the harsh conditions in which these trees grow: an elevation of over 11,000 feet, alkaline soil, strong winds and cold weather. Still, they not only survive, but do so masterfully… and for millennia!

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  • This Great Basin bristlecone pine was captured at Bryce Canyon. It even looks as though this one has wound around itself and put a knot in its own trunk! Considering how truly amazing these trees are, it wouldn’t surprise us… even though we know it’s impossible!

    There are bristlecone pines that grow in less challenging conditions and more favorable environments at lower elevations, but they don’t tend to get so old and also look less gnarled and twisted. So the more characteristically battered and bare a bristlecone looks, the harsher the environment it’s had to endure!

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  • This weather-beaten bristlecone pine can be found in Colorado’s Mosquito Range in Pike National Forest, a little known destination but a great one for tree lovers. Note the bare patches on the tree’s bark on the left side; according to photographer Michel Kiteley, this is the work of ice-bearing winds. Kiteley predicts: “Most of the bark with will be gone by the end of [the tree's] life.”

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  • We especially love this image because it shows the bristlecone pine majestically jutting up from a dolomite outcrop in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It’s amazing to see how the tree seems to emerge out of the rock, with the two blending almost perfectly in color. Given that there’s no tree on Earth older than the bristlecone pine, rock might be an appropriate companion!

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  • Last but not least, we’ve got this striking composition of a particularly gnarled bristlecone pine against a sky streaked with fluffy clouds. If only the tree could talk; what could it tell us? Bear in mind that it may have been there since before the pyramids were built. It has stood stoically through wars, natural catastrophes and the rise and fall of empires – fleeting events now simply washed aside by the tides of time. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

    To find out about the nine other oldest trees in the world, follow the link!

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4,5, 6, 7, 8

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